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By Pat Lisi, Southern Utah Vets Aid 

            There were many different types of insects in Vietnam that pestered the American GI, sometimes to the point of death.  Like the Anopheles mosquito, for example, whose bite and subsequent injection of a toxic chemical could cause a disease known as ‘malaria’ that rarely, but sometimes, took the life of someone.  If not, it usually put the soldier in the rear and out of commission for at least 10 days at a time while the victim battled a tremendous fever and other nasty symptoms.

            And then there were the leeches.  Leeches come in all sizes but typically about the same shape:  Always elongated and slimy, with a head that looks like a disturbing suction device  and a long slinky body that grows fatter while withdrawing blood from a human body.  Sometimes, a leech is so small that you cannot tell it’s on your skin.  Other varieties, like the buffalo leech, are enormously large and grow to be a foot long.  I never saw a buffalo leech in Nam and I can’t say as I’m saddened by the fact.

            But, I can say that I have lots of personal experience with common leeches just like any other Viet Nam vet out there who spent any amount of time in the ‘bush’.  Leeches were everywhere that it was wet, and that covers most of South Vietnam except for areas near the coastline where sandy and dry atmospheres prevail.

            The good thing about leeches was they rarely caused pain or hurt even while munching on your skin for the blood underneath.  For as big and slippery as they are, they’re really kind of inconspicuous (like a tick) and you wouldn’t even know you had one on your skin until you checked for them.  Of course, any leeches hanging off your face, neck or hands was pretty observable and your buddies would always (well, almost always) let you know about it.

            Leeches have several techniques for attaching themselves to you.  While walking through rancid water, like that of a rice paddy, leeches would simply let go of whatever stalk they clung to at the time you came by, and simply swam to you and then slithered right up your leg – unless, of course, you were smart by wearing ‘leech straps’ which was an ingenious device that acted like a rubber band just above the cuffs of one’s jungle trousers.  It would close the bottom of the pants tight to the top of your jungle boots which reduced the chances of a leech getting underneath.  It wasn’t a foolproof deterrent but it was far better than surrendering to the leeches and giving them free range of your lower extremities.

Any submersion into a body of water, like during a stream crossing when the bottom was so deep that you had to wade across holding your M-16 above your head, would almost always result in becoming an intimate pal of a leech or two, or three.  Of course, standing in the middle of a creek bed in enemy territory was not the time to worry about leeches grabbing on for the ride, because what you really wanted to do was just make it to other side alive.  So, we would forget about leeches then and conduct our crossings as expeditiously as possible, and then fret about leeches later.

            Up in the jungles of Viet Nam leeches live in the soggy canopy of the trees.  As our Marines would walk underneath this vegetation on patrol leeches would merely release themselves from the stems above and would actually freefall to land on us.  If you were very quiet you’d hear a very faint ‘plop’ when one would meet your helmet.  If you didn’t hear the lightweight, repulsive worm, the next time you’d realize he was with you was when one of your friends would say something like, “Hey Lisi, there’s a leech on your cheek!” 

            “Crap!  Not another one!”

            But, the most common time to pick up leeches was at night when all was quiet and you lay on the moist ground trying to get a little shut-eye or were on watch duty.  Being small, slippery and mostly black in color, leeches would creep up on you, attach themselves to your skin, and suck away until the next morning when you had a chance to inspect yourself in the daylight and were then able to remove them.

            And, that brings me to the next exciting problem – ‘elimination’.  That is, how do you get a leech to let go of your skin?

            Like a tick once again, if a leech has spent a few hours adhered to your skin and has basically fed on your blood for the night, its body is so distended that it begins to look like a hideous black ball, except for the pointy little tail at the butt end of the beast.  The suction apparatus on the other end of the leech is stronger than you would expect, so when one would grab the leech and try to pry it off their body it would usually result in tearing the nasty, blood-filled bug in half making it more difficult now to remove the suction cup.

            We carried a mosquito repellant in Nam that was extremely potent.  It was 100% DEET and it worked. We discovered that putting just a couple drops of this carcinogenic elixir on a blood-sucking leech right near its suction mechanism would cause it to immediately let go and drop to the ground.  There, it would writhe and curl around itself in what appeared to be horrible discomfort, much to the delight of the Marine or soldier who had just achieved this small victory over one of Mother Nature’s most insidious and unlikely creatures.  After watching the leech go through contortions for a few seconds most guys would put it out of its misery with the heel of their boot.

            At that time, you would tend to the wound left behind by the leech by sopping up your blood that always ended up streaming down your leg or arm (or wherever the leech had dined) after the animal was no longer attached.  There was always a chance of infection after a leech was removed and the Navy corpsmen or medic had ointments we could put on to help protect the area. 

            After a good warm rain, a long patrol through steamy jungle terrain, an exercise across a few putrid paddies, or after a restless night of watch and worry, it was not uncommon to find a half dozen or more leeches on your body.  They were present in large numbers, not as bad as mosquitoes mind you, but nonetheless creepy and ghastly.  My only use for leeches now is for when I go out on the lake fishing for Walleye.  Of course, leeches are used for lots of different medical procedures now, and have been part of Chinese remedy going back to before the Ming Dynasty.

 Me?  I can live without them, except for fish bait of course, and that’s just the way it’s going to be, thank you very much.




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